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Monday, September 29, 2014

Perception vs. Reality - a Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Imagine the following conversation on the corner of Peachtree Street and Spring Street:
Man 1: You know, I am so sick and tired of hearing about Israel.  All the Israeli army does is go in the Gaza Strip and start killing Palestinians.  They really have no way of defending themselves. 

Man 2: What are you talking about?

Man 1: Well, I saw on the news that Israel has been bombing Palestinians towns and destroying their buildings and infrastructure.

Man 2: Have you not seen on the news that the Palestinians have been shooting rockets into Israel since 2006 and probably even before that?

Man 1: Yeah, well, those rockets barely cause any damage…don’t they usually land in the middle of the desert where no one can get hurt?

Man 2: Ok, so what if Canada starting sending rockets into the forest areas of the Northern United States?

Man 1: Well, Canada would become the 51st state…the US army would go in and take over Canada.

Man 2: So, doesn’t Israel have the right to destroy anything that targets its land and people?

Man 1: It’s not the same thing…
            Good evening and L’Shanah Tovah!  As I have looked out into the congregation this evening, I have done my best to make eye contact with as many of you as possible.  As the High Holy Days continue, I will do my best to continue this task.  It is my goal that by the end of Yom Kippur, I will have smiled or exchanged a quick glance with every one of you.  After all, it is you, every one of you here tonight who have given me the amazing opportunities and blessings I have received over the past 2 and a half years.  It truly is my pleasure to walk through the doors of TKE every day to find a new challenge, a new blessing and many, many new smiles.  TKE is my home and I speak for all 3 and a half of the Boxts when I say how lucky and blessed we feel to be here.
          When I sat down to write my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon this year, I decided very early on I would need to speak about Israel.  After all, the situation in the Middle East is in the center of everyone’s world focus right now.  Last year, I spoke about Israel on Erev Rosh Hashanah as well.  I knew I would be leading a trip to Israel in June, 2014, and I wanted to build up some interest and excitement about the trip.  This year, however, my sermon has a very different intention.  While I believe it is always important to be excited and passionate for and about Israel, this year my sermon will focus on perception. 
In the Jewish camping world years ago, I learned a very valuable motto – “Perception is reality.”  Even if someone has the best of intentions, when others perceive them in one particular light, that perception is their reality.  Over the past few months, I have had to face a few very important perceptions about myself…and these perceptions have given me the opportunity to recreate myself in ways that ultimately will help me grow into the rabbi I want to be and the rabbi TKE needs me to be.
So, you may be asking yourself at this point what this has to do with Israel.  Well, in one of my many conversations in the past year, I was challenged on a particular viewpoint.  My friend and I were having lunch, and while we were eating, we were keenly aware of the news on the televisions around us which were discussing the latest news coming out of Israel.  While my friend and I could agree on many things, we certainly did not agree on what we were observing in the news.  To say that the conversation became a little heated would be an understatement.  I actually was worried someone from the restaurant would kick us out as our voices were quite raised.  We were able, eventually, to calm our voices and have an adult conversation about our differences.  Truth be told, I learned quite a bit that day and I believe my friend did as well.
You see, my friend and I are both intelligent adults.  Both of us educated and have spent large amounts of time dedicating ourselves to learning about not only Israel but the entire Middle East.  And, yet, our perceptions of the people and the situation in the Middle East are so very different.  This is not because either one of us is right or wrong.  We are both right and we are both wrong.  The key to any conversation regarding any issue is knowledge.  Whenever we hold conversations, it is vital that we be educated in the topic.  Every one of us in the world has an opinion…there is no one that can argue that.  What becomes problematic is when those opinions are not based in knowledge or factual information.
During my sermon last year, I told a story regarding my neighbor and his views of the “other” in Israel.  The situation in Israel is so volatile and really goes very deep for those who live there.  After all, those citizens of Israel and the surrounding countries live through what we read about or hear about in the news every day.  The reality they live in is a reality that many or all of us here tonight may never have to experience.  It is easy to speak about their reality based on our perceptions…but this can be very dangerous as well.  What is much safer is that we learn about the situation in the Middle East from a varied group of sources – whether they be books, news reports, websites, or any other kind of source you might find.
          About a year or so ago, I was approached by Kids 4 Peace, an organization with the following mission: …to build interfaith communities that embody a culture of peace and empower a movement for change.  I have always been committed to the idea that when we all learn V’ahavtah L’reiacha Kamocha, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” we will be able to live in a world of peace.  So, with my heart in my hand, I jumped right into the Kids 4 Peace world.  What I have learned during my time with Kids 4 Peace is that there are people out there (from all sides of the political, cultural and religious spectrum) who have dedicated themselves to a reality of peace – not just a perception of peace. 
          As Jews, we should support Israel as a Jewish state.  After all, Israel needs us as much as we need Israel.  This seems like a very easy or obvious comment.  However, perception gets in the way sometimes.  When two people with different perspectives speak about what is going on, you might find two very different perceptions. 
          Remember the conversation that Rabbi Lebow and I had at the beginning of my sermon - the two speakers on the corner of Peachtree and Spring Street – discussing the situation in the Middle East?  Well, those two speakers could be any two people in Atlanta.  And, both of them could be educated folks.  Or, neither one of them could be educated.  After all, both of the speakers could have heard what they thought was true by any of the news sources that are out there.  I posit though that most of us in this room would react very differently if both or either of the two speakers was not Jewish.  Why is that?  Is it because as Jews we are required to agree with everything that Israel does?  Or, is it because we want to keep our disagreements “in the family”?  
          I have always believed that it is perfectly normal and ok for us to criticize Israel when it is necessary.  In my lifetime, I have not always agreed with what Israel does.  I have, however, always believed Israel has the right to defend herself as any other country.  When a double standard is applied to Israel, it is not right nor is it fair.  And, yet, a double standard continues to be applied to Israel by non-Jews AND Jews.  My friends, it is easy to criticize Israel…it is harder to sit back and not say anything. 
          Why is that?  Why is it so hard for us to just sit back and let Israel have the same benefit of the doubt as every other country in the world?  I would argue it is because there is a very wrong perception of what Israel should or should not be.  It is as if Israel should be required to act “better” or more “humane” than other countries.  And, this boggles my mind.  What is it about ha’aretz, The Land that requires such a strong double standard?  Is it because Israel is of vital importance to 3 of the world’s main religions?  This little piece of land is so debated, so desired…and yet, what does that have to do with Israel being any “better” than any other country?
As a Jew, I will support Israel and her right to exist and take care of her people as long as there is a breath in my body.  Imagine for a moment the conversation between those two speakers was being held at the corner of Jaffa Street and King George Street in downtown Jerusalem.  I do not know about you, but I cannot imagine that conversation.  After all, those two men speaking on Peachtree Street live a very different reality than those same two men would live if they lived in Israel.  Earlier, I mentioned that perception sometimes gets in the way.  Well, let’s look at some facts about the situation in Israel and the different perceptions that exist out there.
          Since Hamas was elected in charge of the Gaza Strip in 2006 – yes, Hamas was chosen by the people to lead them, over 12,000 rockets have been fired out of the Gaza Strip into Israel.  And, by the way, that includes over 1,000 rockets since “Operation Protective Edge” began this summer.  Yes, since the beginning of July, over 1,000 rockets have been fired into Israel.  Can you even imagine what would happen if that occurred here in the US?  Our army would be activated to take over. 
          Let us take a short trip back to 2005 in Israel and the Gaza Strip.  It was in 2005 that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel enacted the Disengagement Plan Implementation Law.  After years of fighting and loss of life (on both the Palestinian and Israeli side), Israel unilaterally withdrew all of her troops from the Gaza Strip, leaving behind a lot of infrastructure that could be used by the newly elected Hamas government to rebuild the Gaza Strip.  Infrastructure – yes, Israel left behind over 3,000 greenhouses to be used by those residents of the Gaza Strip.  Why?  Well, Israel hoped that the residents of the Gaza Strip would turn the Gaza Strip into a fertile ground…into a great new beacon of hope for the Palestinians.  Well, that did not happen.  Instead, Hamas destroyed all of the greenhouses.
You might be asking yourself, “Why in the world would anyone believe that a terrorist organization such as Hamas would do anything to help rebuild the Gaza Strip?”          That is a good question…and the truth is that during the democratic vote in the Gaza Strip (in 2005), Hamas set up many social programs with the intention to give food, resources, health care and other important needs to the people in the Gaza Strip.  The people in the Gaza Strip were tired of the disorganization and corruption present in the Fatah government.  So, when Hamas appeared to be a better alternative, the citizens of the Gaza Strip voted Hamas in.  This is another example of how perception can be dangerous.
          When Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, what infrastructure they left was crumbled, burned and destroyed.  Why?  I am not sure as I do not live in the Gaza Strip…but my guess is that the Hamas government did not want their people to have any resources other than what they promised to provide.  And, then what happened?  Well, the millions upon millions of dollars supplied to the Hamas government were used to purchase weaponry, bombs, guns, etc.  And, those resources that were intended for the people of the Gaza Strip?  Those were given to the leaders of Hamas…which is one explanation why the leaders of Hamas live in palace type homes while the “regular” residents of the Gaza Strip live in poverty.
And, yet, with all of this maltreatment of her own people, Hamas has still remained the governing body of the Gaza Strip – with all of the resources and funds being funneled to these corrupt Hamas leaders.  Do you know why the leaders of Hamas have retained all of their power?  Well, I was having a discussion with a Muslim friend recently at a Muslim/Jewish wedding I officiated.  He told me the following,
          “Rabbi, those that live outside of Israel in the Middle East are uneducated.  Their governments retain their support because they are desperate to get out of poverty and while their governments hold the purse strings, they have no other choice but to follow these leaders.”  My dear TKE family – education is so vital.  When we are educated, we have the ability to think critically and make decisions for ourselves.  These governments – Hamas included – keep their people in poverty because that is how they are able to control them.  My friend also suggested to me that the solution to the problems in the Middle East – specifically the problems outside of Israel – would come from educated Muslims in the United States.
          My dear TKE family – I stand here this evening a rabbi who supports Israel with all of my heart and soul.  Every day I long to be able to return to Ha-aretz, to the land which my forefathers lived.  If it were possible, I would travel to Israel every year…if nothing else to enjoy the food!  And, as I support Israel with every essence of my being, I also realize that Israel is a country full of people who live their lives every day just to provide food and sustenance for their families.  And, as human beings, they are bound to make mistakes.  The same is true of those that live in the Gaza Strip.  There are people in the Gaza Strip who really do wake up every day with the intention of providing a better life for their families.
          So, let me end this sermon tonight with a challenge to everyone of us here.  Not only do we need to support Israel as a Jewish state.  We also need to support the efforts of the Liberal Movement or the Reform Movement in Israel.  How do we do this?  Well, I will tell you.  In October, 2015, the 37th World Zionist Congress will meet in Israel.  Beginning in January, 2015, all Jews in the world have the right, the responsibility to vote in the WZO elections.  It is imperative we cast our votes in support of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA).  With our support, we will ensure that our movement and the leaders of our movement in Israel will continue to receive financial support from Israel.  As American Jews, we must show our support for Israel and most importantly for the values and interests of all Jews, regardless of gender, sexual preference or nationality.  As Reform Jews, we must show our commitment to all Jews.
Tonight, when you leave, please take one of the ARZA/WZO Pledge Cards.  These pledges are pledges to vote – to cast your vote in support of the Reform Jewish movement in Israel and in the whole Jewish world.  Every one of us must pledge to vote – not only for us today, but for our children and their children in the future.
It is my hope that in 5775 will bring every one of us here tonight peace, love and hope.  I pray we wake up one day with the peace we seek here, in the Middle East, and everywhere.  May God bless each and every soul that sits here this evening and spread God’s warmth and loving embrace outward to all of those in our world who are in need of it.
L’Shanah Tovah!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Bless and be blessed...

I am constantly after day, hour after hour of the many, many blessings in my life.  During my "normal" day, I am given many opportunities to be blessed by the ideas, thoughts and examples of others. Sometimes, though, I am actually asked to give a blessing to others. When I visit with congregants in hospitals or in their homes, I find myself being blessed - after all, it truly is my honor to be with people during their most vulnerable AND happy times.  I am often thanked when I visit with people...what they often do not recognize or understand is that I am just as thankful of them as they may be of me.

As we approach the High Holy Days, many of us will turn to self reflection.  We will begin to think about all of those moments in the previous year when we were challenged and/or given opportunities to do things differently - not better, but different.  Of course, we have had our successes as well...which often are overshadowed by our failures and challenges.  Let me remind you - without failures, we would never be able to understand what it means to succeed - and vice versa.  When we reflect this month, let us dig deep down in our memories for those moments we may have forgotten or chosen to bury.  After all, those moments also help to determine who we are.

This year - may we all be blessed...and may we all bless.  May we find ourselves entering 5775 with a renewed sense of determination...determination for any number of goals or successes.  May 5775 bring us answers to some questions we still have.  May 5775 bring us blessings and the opportunities to bless.  When you meet with someone, bless them...and through that blessing, allow yourself also to be blessed. Reciprocity - that is the key.  When we seek answers, let us also give answers.  When we ask questions, let us also answer the questions of others.

My wish for this new year is that each of us has the opportunity to bless...and to be blessed.  On behalf of Batya, Carlie and myself, I wish for each of you to have a healthy and happy new year.  May we all be blessed together as we bless each other.